A MUCH-criticised EC regulation on ear-tagging sheep will cost British
farmers a crippling £96million a year, the Press can reveal today. And the
bills threaten to wipe out the entire profits of many sheep farmers.

      The EU has announced proposals which will mean all Britain's 40million
sheep having to be double ear-tagged and given an individual 14-digit
identification number in a single operation in July.

      The numbers of each animal will have to be recorded each time they
move on or off the farm or even into separate flocks.

      Farmers have denounced the idea as unworkable, and some industry
leaders have warned they will simply refuse to comply with the regulation.

      They include National Sheep Association chairman Peter Baber, from
Christow, near Exeter, who says the red tape could wipe out the entire
British sheep sector. The scale of the costs now suggests that is no

      The estimates, allowing £12 an hour for labour plus on-costs, indicate
tagging and repeatedly checking sheep will cost a lowland farmer with 600
ewes £13,000 a year.

      For an upland farmer dealing with sheep ranging free miles from the
farmhouse, the figure goes up to £16,000.

      Yet the latest figures released by Defra this week show the average
lowland livestock farmer is only likely to earn £7,500 this year, and his
upland colleague - who receives more subsidies - just £10,000.

      But the EU is pressing ahead with the scheme, which it sees as a way
of improving the traceability of meat. The European Parliament's agriculture
committee discussed its implementation only last week.

      The NFU is campaigning against a regulation it says will hit hardest
in Britain because it has the largest flock sizes in Europe. In upland areas
like Exmoor there may be 5,000 sheep on a single holding.

      Defra itself is opposed to the tagging scheme, which officials say is
unnecessary and probably unworkable where large flocks are involved. It
plans to place documents detailing the probable costs in the House of
Commons library next week.

      Exmoor sheep farmer Andrew Hawkins, who owns 1,000 ewes, says the
costs involved, coupled with the loss of some subsidies, will mean an end to
centuries of sheep farming on the moor.

      "It is a total nonsense. One minute they are telling us they want more
natural farming systems, which is exactly what we are doing up here, and the
next they are trying to turn us into a bloody factory," he said.